The energy supply to Longyearbyen, midway between continental Norway and the North Pole, is a hot topic in the climate debate. Longyearbyen is the largest settlement and the administrative centre of Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. Today, Longyearbyen obtains its electric power and district heating from its coal power plant, the only one in Norway. However, Scandinavia’s largest think tank has estimated that Svalbard’s future could be green and sustainable.

Longyearbyen, founded in 1906 by John Munroe Longyear, started its existence thanks to the coal which was found in the hills around the town. Over the years, 7 mines had been driven into the hills to mine coal and then ship it to Norway. Picture: Sysselmannen
Longyearbyen, founded in 1906 by John Munroe Longyear, started its existence thanks to the coal which was found in the hills around the town. Over the years, 7 mines had been driven into the hills to mine coal and then ship it to Norway. Picture: Sysselmannen

Longyearbyen’s power plant, the only one in Norway using coal, produces annual emissions of 40 tons of CO2 per inhabitant, four times as much as those per mainland inhabitant, even including those generated by the oil industry. This situation has led to reactions from both environmentalists and politicians. In the course of the debate about sustainable alternatives, some politicians have already been speaking warmly about replacing Longyearbyen's coal power plant with a cable between the city and mainland Norway: a 1000-km undersea cable capable of bringing surplus wind- and hydro-power to the country's outpost in the far north. A recent study carried out by SINTEF has shown that shipping surplus energy to Svalbard in the form of liquid hydrogen rather than via a cable could mean annual savings of more than NOK 100 million (USD 11.5 million). The estimated costs include the construction of an electrochemical power station in Longyearbyen. A plant of this type would generate electricity from hydrogen without emissions, by means of fuel cells.

The world’s first special ship for cargoes of liquid hydrogen is already being built. SINTEF researchers have evaluated that Svalbard could become a zero-emissions society in the future, thanks to hydrogen shipped in from the mainland. Picture: SINTEF / Kawasaki Heavy Industries
The world’s first special ship for cargoes of liquid hydrogen is already being built. SINTEF researchers have evaluated that Svalbard could become a zero-emissions society in the future, thanks to hydrogen shipped in from the mainland. Picture: SINTEF / Kawasaki Heavy Industries

The ABB energy company estimates that a single cable to the mainland would cost NOK 3 billion (USD 345 million), while a more supply-reliable double cable would come to BNOK 5 (USD 575 million). For the price of power supplied by a cable to fall to the level of hydrogen-based power, a cable would also have to supply electricity to offshore installations in the Barents Sea, says SINTEF's project manager Anders Ødegård. Several participants in the debate have made the same point. "But Svalbard needs a long-term solution. It would not be sensible to depend on oil platforms with a lifetime of only a few decades. Our results make it clear that it is important to discuss Svalbard's future energy supply on a broad basis and not settle on a cable as the only possible zero-emissions solution," says Ødegård. In one of SINTEF' scenarios for the future, Svalbard will supply some energy itself by producing solar power during the summer. As winter approaches, more and more electricity will be generated from hydrogen transported from the mainland. Ødegård emphasises that any further discussion of Svalbard's future energy situation should also include other alternatives, such as geothermal energy and continued coal-fired electricity generation, with carbon capture and storage. "The Longyearbyen power station has recently been upgraded to extend its lifetime by 20 years. In a climate perspective, it would be unthinkable to continue with the current level of emissions for such a long time, which is why it is essential to put Svalbard's energy supply on the agenda now," says Ødegård.

Two coal mines are still running on Svalbard. One of them produces coal only for Longyearbyen while the other one, Sveagruva, exports its coal. Picture: Erlend Berge
Two coal mines are still running on Svalbard. One of them produces coal only for Longyearbyen while the other one, Sveagruva, exports its coal. Picture: Erlend Berge

If all of Longyearbyen's electric power were to be generated in a hydrogen power station, it would cost one krone (about € 0.11) less per kilowatt-hour than power supplied by cable, according to the estimates that the report's authors regard as most realistic. "If we combine imported hydrogen and local solar power, Svalbard would save a further NOK 0.20 per kWh," says Ødegård. At current levels of energy consumption, implementing both solutions would mean that Longyearbyen's total annual electricity bill would be more than NOK 100 million (€ 10.5 million) lower if hydrogen is used in preference to a cable-based solution. On Norway's northernmost territory, coal mining has reached its final stages. "We have assumed that Svalbard will replace mining with new industries of about the same overall dimensions. For that reason, we have based the whole of this study on current levels of consumption," says Jonas Martin, a German economics student and SINTEF trainee, who has been responsible for performing the calculations under the guidance of SINTEF scientists with long experience in this area. The study is also looking at the possibility of meeting Svalbard's electricity requirements by installing wind turbines. However, this solution would be more expensive than cable power, and in any case, would scarcely be acceptable on environmental grounds. Svalbard’s future with hydrogen relies on many technical factors. However, also on the hydrogen prices which should be competitive, if produced in Norway. And there are still a few uncertainties which firstly need to be erased before Svalbard will be the first completely green community.

Longyearbyen heavily depends on electricity as it gets dark during the long polar nights. Credit: Michelle van Dijk
Longyearbyen heavily depends on electricity as it gets dark during the long polar nights. Credit: Michelle van Dijk

Source: SINTEF